midnight games over Colombo airspace
- High flying Air Force caught napping
- Kfirs, Mig 27s saved by a whisker
Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) is this island’s pride in the skies.
Determined and dedicated to protect our nation’s sovereignty,
this effective arm of our security forces comprises well trained
and disciplined individuals, armed with state-of-the-art weapons
systems,” states the SLAF website.
How state-of-the-art is the radar system or, how primitive it
is, was amply demonstrated on Sunday night, when the Tigers
staged their midnight games over Colombo airspace while the air
force was caught napping.
The SLAF website continues: “Resulting from strategic training,
creative thinking and constant upgrading, the SLAF has
maintained its principles of constant evolution and forward
Granted. But the ‘forward thinking’ should have envisaged
preparation for an attack such as that on Sunday night. The
difficulty in destroying an enemy aircraft in the air is
understandable but, failure to have contingency plans in place
is the issue. Even the mighty United States had failed to
prevent the September 11, 2001 attack despite receiving
“Come rain or shine, the SLAF can always be depended upon to
take command and control of the skies…”
We may add: “Come night, enemy aircraft may take command and
control of the skies.” Such control was seen over two long hours
on Sunday night.
They came, they saw, they bombed, without success in their
stated mission to destroy the fleet of Kfir fighter jets and Mig
27s that have wreaked havoc on the guerilla organisation.
The fact that the Mig 27s undertook five missions since the
Sunday night mission, demonstrates that the fleet is intact. It
undertook raids over Iranmadu, Mannar North, Mullaitivu North,
Karadiyanaru and Challai.
The bombs caused some damage to a few helicopters (some claim
two while others say as much as five) that were parked there. In
one instance, the bombs exploded in the engineering division,
affecting the computerization.
That the target was missed by a whisker, the SLAF must thank its
stars that warm night.
The SLAF has come out with flying colours in Eelam War IV,
breaking the backbone of the LTTE with its precision bombing of
identified targets. It has also greatly assisted the army and
navy in many confrontations/operations, barring Muhamalai, where
it was kept in the dark.
But, this time, when the key Katunayake base was targeted, there
was no defensive measure in place to take on the enemy.
It is not only a shame on the air force; the entire defence
establishment must take the blame for its failure to have a plan
in place, to be executed in such an eventuality. The Nation did
warn the country of an impending air attack.
“The ultimate challenge for the Sri Lankan defence establishment
would be to face an air offensive from the LTTE. The nightmare
of such an eventuality hangs over the government and the defence
establishment, as hostilities between the two parties increase
daily.” These were the opening lines in this column headlined,
“Vision for a deadly mission,” that appeared on July 23, 2006.
The column under its previous pseudonym Promethus in a double
spread, graphically warned of such a “deadly mission” and
highlighted it on the Page 1 panel.
Based on intelligence reports, this warning was made a day
before the fifth anniversary of the LTTE attack on the SLAF base
at Katunayake. (See montage as well as box story for the
detailed warning, including the names of aircraft in LTTE
possession since 1997). The week before, we cautioned,
“Katunayake attack 5th anniversary: Threat still looms.”
Who knows, whether the LTTE had shelved its plans to bomb the
Katunayake air base, after the media exposure raised initial
alertness? It is highly probable that the LTTE would have wanted
to kick off Eelam War IV by destroying its Achilles heel- Kfirs
and Mig 27s.
Judging by the government’s response to each Tiger attack, the
Tigers knew the military would put its fleet of fighter jets to
good use. The attack on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
and the June, 2006, Kebbethigollewa massacre, saw the SLAF
spring into action, taking on identified rebel targets.
The LTTE believes in springing surprises. Hence, the first
ground attack with infiltrators. A ground attack of that
magnitude now is unthinkable, as the Tigers know that the forces
are well prepared. The question is whether the military needs to
be hit to prepare its defences.
Targeting Katunayake or any other place in Colombo by air again
will be difficult, as the element of surprise has been taken
away. However, unless the authorities swiftly go in for the best
radar systems and a planned counter attack or still better, a
pre-emptive attack with greater coordination and
state-of-the-art equipment, the Tigers could succeed again.
On July 24, 2001, LTTE cadres infiltrated the air base and
destroyed 13 aircraft including two Kfir jets, one MI-24
Helicopter gunship and one MIG-27 jet fighter.
Forget intelligence reports. Forget media reports.
Why couldn’t the defence establishment realize that the threat
was real, given the August 11 incident last year, when an
unidentified aircraft, around 9:00 p.m., had reportedly flown
over Palaly military base and fired rockets at the base.
Attacking Palaly base with rockets from the air, ended the
military’s artillery fire, the Tigers claimed.
“We will use our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in an all
out defensive measure to protect our people and homeland,” said
LTTE military spokesman, Irasaiah Ilanthirayan at that juncture.
On the Tiger bombing this week, Ilanthirayan warned that “other
Sri Lanka military installations will also be targets of our
These warnings are veiled threats that should not evoke panic
but, spur the authorities into being prepared with an exigency
The LTTE was keen to have its aircraft return to base, to
maintain its threat to bomb, as smuggling aircraft is no easy
task. (Attempts at smuggling dismantled choppers by NGOs, in the
immediate aftermath of the tsunami, failed).
It is likely that the Tiger pilots, who deny it was a suicide
mission on Sunday night, would have been prepared for a suicide
mission, if the need arose.
On several occasions, this column had warned that the LTTE is
alive to the fact that the SLAF and the Sri Lanka Army (SLA)
were not very comfortable in conducting night operations. If the
LTTE, the Sri Lanka Navy and the elite forces have fixed their
night vision problem, why not the SLAF and the army.
More Mig 27s are being purchased with public funds, without
securing those already available. It must, however, be commended
that strategically, the SLAF has not stationed all its fighter
planes in one location. Also, the authorities have been
conducting search operations in the vicinity of its air bases.
But, all these precautions are to prevent a ground attack. What
about an air attack? Did the authorities reconcile themselves to
a wait and see policy.
Not a single aircraft was airborne from Katunayake, Hingurakkoda,
Vavuniya or Anuradhapura air bases, after receiving information
of these suspicious aircraft.
There should have been a scramble ordered with the intention of
intercepting the enemy aircraft. Planes could have taken off
from several of the six air bases or seven units of the SLAF
equipped with airfields. With basic night vision equipment such
an interception would have been possible.
Of course, there was ground-to-air firing to no avail. Does the
military have Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) which the LTTE used
to bring down Pucaras and Avros in a previous Eelam war?
A detailed discussion on the available air defence system is not
possible for security reasons. The silence of the SLAF should
not be misinterpreted as an attempt to conceal the truth.
Certain matters cannot be discussed in detail for security
However, it must be mentioned that the Sri Lankan authorities
should have been satisfied about the defence system provided by
India, before settling for first generation radars, even as a
more sophisticated one was offered by China. The radar system we
received did not target low-flying aircraft. The country’s
defence must come first.
In as much as India is concerned of its own security, vis-à-vis
the region, Sri Lanka should have gone for the best during the
tenure of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was Indian Foreign
Secretary Shyam Saran, during a visit to Colombo, who had agreed
to provide an air defence radar system. The incumbent Foreign
Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, however, has been quick to rule
out the possibility of the radars failing, even before proper
assessment of the technical side of the investigation.
The attack appears to have been timed when three of the radars
were taken for servicing, raising suspicions that such
information had been leaked to the Tigers. The Criminal
Investigations Department (CID) headed by DIG D.W.
Prathapasinghe, has already launched an investigation. Following
reports that the Special Task Force (STF) personnel from the STF
Ganeshapuram camp had informed the SLAF directly and through STF
headquarters, that a suspicious aircraft was airborne and moving
in the direction of Colombo, Prathapasinghe visited Vavuniya,
where police personnel are believed to have spotted the rogue
aircraft. He visited the Vavuniya CID office as well as the
Terrorist Investigations Division (TID) office. It is learnt
that home-guards near Wilpattu, had seen the aircraft.
The flight path of these two low-flying aircraft was reportedly
from Iranamadu through Ganeshapuram via Wilpattu to Katunayake.
The path was similar to that taken by other aircraft across the
sea to quash any suspicions. But the radar at Katunayake had
registered the presence of these aircraft.
The fact that these aircraft got away without a hassle, in the
absence of any effort by the authorities to intercept them,
speaks volumes of how complacent the defence establishment has
Following a disclosure in the Sunday Times several years back,
that the LTTE had constructed a 1.2 kilometre-long runway south
east of the Iranamadu irrigation tank, the existence of such an
airstrip was confirmed by none other than the then SLMM Chief
You don’t build airstrips for nothing. The defence establishment
should have anticipated such an attack and done all in its power
to pre-empt such a strike. Military exercises should have been
conducted towards this end. Simply informing the United States
and India will not serve the intended purpose. A plan should
have been drawn up to meet the challenge and it should have been
tried and tested.
We did mention a range of possibilities, including a Czech built
aircraft that was in the possession of the LTTE since 1997. The
aircraft, in knocked down form, was transported to LTTE
territory by Sujith Gunapala, who was part of the Sea Tigers. He
has admitted to the authorities.
After the first Katunayake attack, the year 2001 spelt doom for
the country, registering, for the first time, a negative growth.
That same year, in September, there were bad tidings for the
LTTE. The organisation’s nascent Air Wing called Vaanpuligal
(Air Tigers) was struck by double tragedy.
The chief of the Air Tigers Vythialingam Sornalingam alias
‘Col.’ Shankar, a former aeronautical engineer attached to Air
Canada, was killed by a deep penetration team called the Long
Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP).
That same month, on the 11th to be precise, the world woke up to
one of the biggest terrorist attacks (twin towers in New York)
using planes on a suicide mission. With these twin happenings,
the Tigers’ dreams of developing its air power was checked in
In the backdrop of the Tiger attack on the airbase/airport, the
government was forced to settle for peace talks, while the LTTE
was compelled to return to the negotiating table with an
international war on terror declared.
However, for the LTTE, these were temporary setbacks. It used
the truce to get the weapons and ammunition it required for the
next bout of war. It also got down two aeronautical engineers
from Switzerland and the United States, to finalise aspects of
its air wing which it now calls Tamileelam Air Force (TAF).
An Asian Tribune report states that several others Thileepan,
Samraj, Chandran, Sinna Jeevah, Mahesh, Kryun Mikola and others
are involved in the air wing. Some have trained in France and
Czechoslovakia, while some others procure aircraft spares and
other related equipment which they shipped through Singapore.
The website also gives details of the LTTE air wing in Malaysia,
where LTTE cadres were put through training classes in
aeronautical engineering and training at the Advance
Aeronautical Training Center in Perak owned by a T. Dorai who
has admitted to training Sri Lankans from Jaffna.
SLAF dead and injured personnel
Rajapaksa, Shantha Lal and Priyantha died while those injured
and receiving treatment at the Negombo hospital include
Rajapaksa and Edirisinghe, Kekulanda, Sampath, Priyadharshana,
Udayakumara, Samaranayaka, Ratnayaka, Bandara and Karunaratne.
Court of Inquiry
Force Commander Air Marshall Roshan Gunatilleke has appointed a
five-member Court of Inquiry headed by the Chief of Staff and
four others representing the Engineering, Medical, Air Defence
System and Security. While the Air Defence system is the
responsibility of the SLAF, the Court will inquire into the
quality of the radar system, its response, the actions taken by
the Base Commander Group Captain Kolitha Gunetilleke, who was
informed, whether the information was passed to the correct
personnel; what action was taken; whether there was proper
coordination; whether there were security lapses; whether
information was leaked out; and so on.
Vision for a deadly mission over Colombo
ultimate challenge for the Sri Lankan defence establishment
would be to face an air offensive from the LTTE. The nightmare
of such an eventuality hangs over the government and the defence
establishment, as hostilities between the two parties increase
daily, under the very eyes of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM),
making a mockery of the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) that is still
If the two parties fail to catch the many messages that war is
not an option and eventually opt for a fresh bout of war, the
LTTE would not hesitate to use whatever air capability it has
acquired over the last few years.
All defence experts hint at such a scenario. It is not just a
ruse but a real threat. An air attack, probably a suicidal one
like the 9/11 attack in the US, at a key establishment should be
anticipated and necessary preventive measures taken.
Air capability of the LTTE would severely threaten the
sovereignty of the Sri Lankan government over its airspace. So
far, it is only the government that had full control of the air,
thereby assisting ground troops during an operation. The most
dangerous factor is that the Sri Lankan radar systems, at
present, are blind below 1000 feet, making targets vulnerable to
attacks from aircraft flying below 1,000 ft.
It is now clear that the LTTE would go to any extent to launch
an attack on a key economic and strategic establishment. Their
failed attempt at laying sea mines around the Colombo port
recently, is evidence of such Tiger tactics. When the LTTE is
likely to think that they should go towards an all out war, they
would use whatever air capabilities in their possession, to
undertake a suicide mission.
Is the government and the defence establishment ready to face
such a situation? The government of course, has turned towards
big brother – India – to acquire an air defence radar system.
This was also discussed during the recent visit of Indian
Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, to the country. India knows that
one such suicidal attack by the LTTE, using its limited
airpower, would result in the air force going on the rampage in
the north, as it did after the attack on Army Commander Lt. Gen.
Last week, we focused on the LTTE targeting the Katunayake
airbase, the Ratmalana airport and other sensitive defence
locations, to cut off the supply routes to Jaffna, before a
final onslaught to capture the peninsula.
The LTTE’s acquisition of air capability came into public
discussion in the late nineties. The Tigers themselves
proclaimed that flower petals were dropped by an aircraft during
the 1998 Matyrs Day celebrations.
It has also been revealed during interrogation of LTTE suspects,
that the Tigers have acquired air capability to some extent.
Questioning of an LTTE gun running suspect arrested in Thailand,
has brought to light that he had been engaged in unloading a
small aircraft contained in two large boxes in 1997. The
suspect, Sujith, was arrested in 2003, while trying to smuggle
weapons to the eastern coast of Sri Lanka through Thailand. He
had been an active member of the Sea Tiger wing engaged in
transporting weapons and other goods for the LTTE, from ships
anchored in mid sea.
It can be surmised that the LTTE had brought light aircrafts in
parts and had assembled them here. It is being suspected by
military intelligence that the LTTE would have acquired these
light aircraft from Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
The LTTE could be in possession of a P-21, Pilatius aircraft. If
in the possession of the LTTE, the P-21 allows the LTTE the
capability to move high value goods and personnel. It has
extensive range and allows access to key destinations such as
Thailand and Cambodia. This one pilot plane could be used to
transport weapons and narcotics, as well as other sophisticated
electronics systems. It could be operated at night as well.
The sophisticated P-12 could be used for strafing runs on the
battlefield and for close air support. It can be deployed for
reconnaissance and aerial photography missions. It could be also
used for attacks on the Colombo airport or for gas attacks on
Apart from these, the LTTE could be in possession of micro
copters as well, which could be used for suicide missions and
support in the battlefield, due to easy maneuverability and low
Associated with the LTTE air capability is its runway at
Iranamadu and possibly at Sampur in Trincomalee. The Iranamadu
runway has come under constant bombardment by the Air Force.
However, the runaway is not an issue, according to defence
experts, since these light aircraft could easily take off from
the temporary clearing in the forest as well.
The defence establishment should do all in its power to prepare
for the worst, rather than be caught unawares.
The new Chief of Defence Staff Donald Perera is expected to bury
whatever differences there is among the three forces and draw up
battle plans involving the combined forces to take on the common
Tigers with Wings - Air Power of the LTTE
The LTTE is the only militant group, after the Nicaraguan
‘Contras’, to acquire air power. Unlike the ‘Contras’, the
Tigers have developed their air wing without any external State
support. Why would the LTTE need an air wing? What is its
strength? And, what are its security implications?
The primary need for the LTTE to gain air power was to counter
the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF). The LTTE suffered immense
damage in the past due to indiscriminate bombings by the SLAF;
so, it became imperative for the LTTE to counter the SLAF. In
the mid 1990s, it acquired anti-aircraft guns, making the SLAF
immobile, until it regained a technological edge by acquiring
radars and other air defence systems. Thereafter, the only
option left for the LTTE was to engage the SLAF in the air.
Secondly, the LTTE needed an air wing to demonstrate its
capability to establish a State structure to its people and to
the outside world. Not surprisingly, during last Heroes’ Week
(November 2004), the ‘Air Tigers’ displayed their newly acquired
aircraft at Mulliyavalai in Mullaitivu District. The LTTE,
apparently, had declared 2000 as the “Year of Air Tigers”. Like
any other professional force, it now has air, sea, and land
forces, with intelligence, artillery, and commando wings.
Thirdly, the LTTE could use its air assets in emergencies - to
get supplies from outside or evacuate critically wounded cadres
for treatment. Since there was a cease-fire, it did not have
much difficulty in taking its Sea Tiger Chief, Soosai, for
treatment to Singapore, which may not have been possible during
war time. Fourthly, it could use its air wing to deter the Sri
Lankan Government in general.
It is difficult to assess the exact strength of the ‘Air
Tigers’, which is still in the formative stage. Till his
assassination in September 2001 ‘Col’ Shankar (Vythialingam
Sornalingam), once an aeronautical engineer with Air Canada, was
the chief of the Vaanpuligal (‘Air Tigers’). He was responsible
for developing the air wing from scratch since 1995. According
to a report submitted early this year to the President by the
SLAF, during a routine reconnaissance by a UAV on January 12
2005, it found an airfield “estimated around 3,600 feet in
length, with a paved surface that was sufficient to land quite
an array of aircraft”-”medium lift aircraft and even aircraft
such as C-130” - south east of Iranamadu irrigation tank. The
LTTE’s attempts to construct an airstrip goes back to the 1990s,
which were repeatedly thwarted by the SLAF. But, the present
airstrip has survived because of the cease-fire. The UAV also
identified the presence of two aircraft: one of them has been
confirmed by the United States to be a Czech built Zlin Z-143,
and the other as a “medium range, light aircraft (perhaps Swiss
built Pilatus PC 7 trainer), thought to possess the capability
to fly for about 350 nautical miles at an average speed of 150
mph (240 kmph) and carry an ordnance load of 1,040 kilograms.”
It is believed that a handful of LTTE cadres were trained in
France and UK as pilots.
The LTTE claims that it acquired its air power well before
signing the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002; but the
Sri Lankan government disputes this. Not getting into pedantic
arguments of before or after the CFA, the more relevant question
now is how will Sri Lanka address this new threat? It is about
time that the personnel in charge of the island’s security find
answers to the following questions:
* Is the LTTE now in a position to attack any target in the
Island? If so, what are the most likely high-risk targets and
how to defend them?
* Is there a possibility of ‘suicidal attacks’ similar to 9/11,
on a Colombo high rise building or, targets of economic and
* Is the SLAF trained and armed to undertake air-to-air combat,
which has never occurred in SLAF’s history?
* Would the Tigers attempt to transport military hardware by
air? How could these sorties be countered? Could neighbouring
countries help, on the pattern of the existing naval cooperation
against the Sea Tigers on the high seas?
* Is there a possibility of landing a hijacked plane in Tiger
controlled territory? The LTTE, of course, has no history of
hijacking, but is it in a position to say “no” to a hijacked
plane landing on its airstrips by a “friendly” terrorist group?
* What are the security implications for India? How will both
countries address this new threat?